STRINGED TRANQUILITY: ARMENIAN FOLK CLASSICS
Ara Topouzian, kanun; Dick Barsamian, oud.
Armenian Recording Productions
By Judith Gabriel
An Armenian colleague brought a CD to work one day, and played it during some down time. At first, it was elevator music, so low in volume it was barely perceptible. But I loved what I heard, and asked it be turned up. I recognized the traditional Armenian melodies, being performed in a straightforward, highly artistic interpretation. Nine tone poems in traditional Armenian modes, varied enough to keep the listening experience an engrossing, moving one. And they're not all so tranquil as the disc title implies; some of the passages are quite passionate and lively.
While many of the melodies sounded familiar to one who had spent years listening to Armenian music, the selections bear only English titles, with one exception: “Armenian Red Wine/Noubar.”
I talked my friend into borrowing the disc, and for several weeks, I played it continuously. Everyone who heard it wanted to hear it again. It was truly one of the all-time “hits” in my at-home soundtrack collection. It's a combination of the choice of material, and the rare level of caring artistry on the part of the artists.
Ara Topouzian, who plays kanun , bendir and def on the disc, is a Michigan native who formed American Recording Productions in 1992 “with the intent to record and preserve Armenian and Middle Eastern folkloric music.” He performs with his own ensemble in the Detroit area, as well as with world music groups in the U.S. Equally important in the album is Dick Barsamian, playing a magnificently clear oud anddarbuka .
One reason there is such a palpable element of tranquility in this album is that the two musicians sound very comfortable with each other, and with their material. Theirs is the natural ease of the accomplished. There's nothing to prove, no need for empty displays of virtuosity. Running through “Stringed Tranquility” is something deeper – a timeless, simple beauty that is reassuring, and yet intoxicating.
This one's a keeper!
OOJAMI: BELLYDANCING BREAKBEATS
Hailing from the Mediterranean town of Bodrum on the southern coast of Turkey, Necmi Cavli, the composer and “music weaver” of “Oojami,” has put together traditional sounds of Turkey and the Far East along with funked up electronic beats and grooves. Fitting right into the heady multi-cultural underground North London clubs – one of which is Necmi's own Hubble Bubble club – this is an entirely new “bellydance” soundtrack. It is full of surprises, some of which will stop your ear until you can jump into the breakbeat melange.
Breakbeat is defined as music that doesn't follow the normal 4/4, four-on-the-floor tempo. Based on drum rhythms, with its origins going back to jazz, it lends itself well to all forms of world music. As poet Saul Williams wrote, “Breakbeats have been the missing link connecting the diaspora community to its drum-woven past.”
On this CD, the traditional Turkish/Arabic dance rhythms are caught in interplay with tight electronic snares, with a dubbed-up bass adding to the fusion sound.
It becomes hard to imagine going back to the “pure” traditional sound after an evening of this funky mix. Titles give a hint at the melange: “Chicky,” “Urban Dervish,” “Boomzaza” and “Istanboogie,” to name a few. Although the artistry on the traditional Middle Eastern instruments comes through, as do recognizable modalities and rhythms, such as the old standard, “Azize,” in a distinctly new arrangement.
Traditional Middle Eastern music purists might not find this style of arrangement to be their cup of chai, but then again, there is plenty of authenticity embedded within the breakbeats and “sound effects.” Evocative, almost cinematic musicial excursions return to fond renditions of village modalities. “Oojami” seizes past and future and weaves an altogether new kind of space, and like space, it is deep, given to harboring phantoms and parallel universes. Quite a trip!
CHEB NASRO: DEPARTURES
Cheb Nasro has long been associated with the beginnings of the rai musical revolution in North Africa. Now living in America, he has remained relatively unknown despite the acquaintance of the rest of the world with his music. Nasro notes that his newest album is the realization of a 14-year dream of producing a worldwide CD. While the album pays tribute to rai singer Cheb Hasni, it is dedicated to his family (including an uncle who bought him his first darbuka).
One of the best numbers on the album – and the disc's opener – is dedicated to, and named for, his young daughter, Fatima. It's a disco rendition that elicits movement and an upbeat frame of mind.
Blending inspirations from East and West, the album enriches its basic rai offerings, but this is not a world dance CD, and it is the pure rai that is the album's heart. Nasro lays it on thick with ballads like “ Cheftha Tebki,” “ El-Ghorba,” and “ El-Hob Saob.” For the Gypsy Kings fan, there's “ Baghi Nenssak.” His North Afro-Cuban “Mon Amour ” works quite well. Reggae influences are felt in “Kifeche Enti” and “C'est Pas Le Peine.”
This is the second release from the world music group Gipsyland, and it delivers a second offering of flamenco music embellished with contemporary influences and international scope. The album features several selections, from Latin salsa to Brazilian samba, pop to Middle Eastern elements. In effect, the flamenco form is modernized without losing its soul.
One of the best bands on the disc is “Salaam,” in which Egyptian-Armenian diva Anoushka sings a duet. The result is a rich blend of flamenco sounds with Arabic.
The title selection, “Arte,” is a modernized flamenco guitar in the foreground of an instrumental arrangement. Purists might prefer less lush numbers, such as the fiesty “Muévete.” The album is a lively listen, with the raw earthiness of flamenco vocals in modern mode.
LES YEUX NOIRS : BALAMOUK
Part gypsy, part klezmer, and part original compositions, the album is a tribute to spontaneity in the traditional mode, with a healthy dose of virtuosity thrown in.
The title term, “Balamouk ” means “House of Fools,” and the album is a celebration of the rhythmic, emotional sounds of Eastern Europe, with themes from Romania, Serbia, Hungary, Russia and Armenia, along with influence from jazz and Yiddish (“Yiddishe Mame”) and Slavic folklore.
Some numbers reflect weddings and other celebrations, while others are laments. In typical folk fashion, some start out slowly with a few melancholic notes on the violin and accordion, only to burst into a passionate, rhythmic mode as the tension breaks into celebration.
Songs are sung in Russian, Yiddish and Romani. Featuring brothers Erik and Oliver Slabiak on violin and vocals, the musical sound is a full one, with Pascal Rondeau, guitar and vocals; France Anastasia, bass and vocals; Francois Perchat, cello; Aidje Tafial, drums and percussions; Constantin Bitica, accordian; and Maria Miu, cimbalom. AJ
This review essay appears in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 48 (Summer 2004)
Copyright (c) 2004 by Al Jadid